Friday, June 14, 2013

Sophisticated Innocence

Quote of the day:
We might posit, for example, a critic of naturalism who has read a great many novels from Defoe to the recent past but little else. This reader would have a kind of sophisticated innocence. He would possess much awareness of how fiction works as an art form and of major changes in the form of the novel throughout its history, but he would be unaware of all matters involving the origins and the ideological and cultural context of particular moments in the history of the form.
-  Donald Pizer, Realism and Naturalism in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (1984), 33.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Love and Learn

 I wasn't aware that Warner Bros. character actor Jack Carson was ever a leading character - and maybe in Love and Learn (Frederick de Cordova) he's not exactly - but his glad-handing persona apparently was part of a cycle of Hope-and-Crosby-style buddy comedies with Dennis Morgan. In this film, in Morgan's place, Robert Hutton plays the co-songwriter and straight-man foil to the remainder of the comedy. I am still trying to get a handle on 1940s comedy, since the genre is one that now seems most remote in its sensibility. But one trope I see is the hard-on-one's luck striver scheming to make it big on moxie alone. (See Fun on a Weekend.) These two songwriters are trying to make a break in Tin Pan Alley, only to find their lack of connections prevent their chances. Love and Learn does not actually pursue a satire of Tin Pan Alley, but rather uses it as the basis for music numbers and a poor-meets rich narrative in which the familiar masquerade takes place across class lines.

The masquerade comes in the form of Barbara Wyngate (Martha Vickers), a rich girl dissatisfied with her socialite existence. The film therefore participates in the class triangulation that is arguably constitutive of Hollywood ideology. Tellingly, the film shows little class specificity. Barbara changes her name to Smith and is remarked as having boarding school manners, but her diction is not that different from the other characters. Similarly, at one point she telephones her love interest's house in the Midwest and the decor of the two spaces is nearly identical. Obviously a WB comedy was not going to be a Fox drama in its attention to mise-en-scene, but it's hard for me to shake the feeling that aesthetically this feels like a film with a great deal of 1930s aesthetic.

Saturday, June 08, 2013


By most counts, RiffRaff (Ted Tetzlaff, RKO) should qualify as an ideal noir example: purloined letter narrative; a Latin-American setting, half romanticized, half contemporary; femme fatale character; big-business-as-crime thematics; and a hard-boiled character who stumbles into a crime. There are probably two things that have kept it far from the noir canon. The lead character Dan Hammer is played by Pat O Brien, whose aging star image does not quite fit or carry the role. This is compounded by Ted Tetzlaff's direction, which even by the standards of a low-budget programmer tends to be wooden in directing actors.

But Tetzlaff, known primarily as a cinematographer, brings a remarkable visual style to the film. The opening scene is a virtuoso example of visual storytelling, with little dialogue at all. Instead, there are a a series of camera movements that reframe the space of an airport hanger and airplane, slowly revealing characters and establishing their relationship to one another. (Sorry for the poor image quality: these were photographed from a TCM broadcast.)


David Bordwell has a terrific discussion of Tetzlaff's work as cinematographer at Columbia in the early 1930s. Here, George Diskant is the cinematographer, but it's hard not to see some of Tetzlaff's visual aesthetic at play. Tight framing, expressive fill lighting, and visual jokes - with the final keyhole shot reminiscent of the shots Bordwell notes in Tetzlaff's early 30s films.

Riffraff lacks the realist-meets-modernism cinematography of a John Alton film or a Union Station - Tetzlaff would go this direction the following year in The Window -  but it's very much a cinematographer's movie.